“Community” has been a church buzz-word for the last few years. It refers not to our neighborhoods (as in, “community service”), but to an ideal of communal Christian life inspired partly by descriptions in Acts 2 that depict the early church members as meeting together in their homes, devoting themselves to teaching and fellowship, and holding everything in common. In response to an increasing sense of isolation in modern culture, churches seek to restore that early-church sense of togetherness and deep connection among members. They seek to “do life” together rather than just meeting up on Sunday mornings and then going their separate ways. To achieve these goals, small groups and “life” groups have proliferated among evangelical churches, with the goal of facilitating interpersonal connections over prayer, Bible study, and the occasional shared meal. A brief scan of church websites attests to the popularity of such programs. But do they work? Can this kind of community be orchestrated?
I’ve been thinking through these issues a lot lately, as my church works through a process of reassessment and revitalization. We hold “community” as a strong value on paper, but in real life, we’ve had a hard time achieving it. We’ve tried small groups, Bible studies, and discipleship groups. We’ve tried discussion groups and book clubs, fun outings and service projects. And some of these experiments have drawn us closer to one another, resulting in “real life” connections. But for many of us, the sense of closeness and “community” ends as soon as the Bible study does. In that way, all these attempts at intimacy find no more success than our Sunday morning small talk over coffee — the “togetherness” does not touch most of our “real” life.
The closest thing I’ve found in my own life to the sense of community that churches seek is my writers’ group — a small group of Christians from various backgrounds who write in a variety of genres. We meet every other week. Sometimes some of us have dinner afterward. Sometimes we have parties for holidays. For the most part, we don’t interact outside of our meetings, except for online in our facebook group. But I feel closer to that group of writers than I ever have to people in a church-based small group, so I’ve thought a lot about why that is and if there’s any way that the church could replicate that feeling. Here are some observations:
We unite around a common goal.
Everyone at writers’ group wants to become a better writer and help others become better writers. This goal helps us to serve one another in our writing workshops. It protects against jealousy or showiness and helps us stay on track whenever our meetings threaten to go off the rails. Importantly, our goal is not to build community. Community has been a beautiful by-product of our primary goal. Most churches share a common goal like worshipping God or building Christ’s Kingdom. But what if we got a little more specific with our goals? What if we all agreed on the primary purpose of a particular small group and did all we could to achieve that goal together? These can even be short-term goals– for example: studying the book of John, reaching out to our immediate neighborhood, or learning about one another’s testimonies. Having a specific goal takes some of the pressure off and gives us something to unite around. And it works! Our little writers’ group has yielded almost 3 complete novels, several short stories, an album, a children’s musical, an interactive role-playing board game, several articles and other short pieces, and many works of poetry. We’ve met our goals of becoming better writers together, and we’ve built community along the way. What attainable goals could your small group take on?
We appreciate our differences.
Although our writers’ group is made of Christians, our members span many denominational backgrounds. We acknowledge and make room for one another’s doctrinal differences. We also encompass a broad range of genres. There’s poetry, fantasy, sci-fi, technical writing, academic writing, songwriting, and children’s fiction — just for starters. Each of us appreciates our individual limitations when it comes to discussing someone else’s genre while also contributing insight from our own perspectives. Although,as writers, we skew introverted, we nevertheless have a pretty good range of personality types represented. As a result, we each contribute something unique and helpful to the discussion. We function beautifully in the writing workshop environment precisely because of our differences. Our group therefore paints a great picture of a functioning church body. United around a common goal of becoming better writers, we employ our many different strengths and abilities to advance the common good. Now, most Christians already know that churches ought to include members with different giftings to serve different roles in the church body. But how well do we value different giftings? Do we say we appreciate all gifts or personalities while elevating or publicly supporting only a few? Many of us also believe that orthodox faith includes room for differences of opinion in certain areas, but some church cultures discourage diverse viewpoints so that the church loses important balancing voices. It’s pretty frustrating to feel like you’ll be ostracized for voicing a divergent opinion. Churches may want to ask how we can better encourage and utilize our diversity so that we function better as a whole.
We cultivate safe vulnerability.
Here’s what the average writer’s group meeting looks like: Each meeting one person brings a piece of work for critique. We all read the piece and then we go through the following process, the same way every time. First, we talk about things we liked about the piece — what worked really well. That’s the fun part. Then, we start in on elements of the piece that don’t work as well or that we may find confusing or have questions about. That’s the scary part. Finally, the author is allowed to speak to ask the group questions and/or defend and explain certain writing choices. As you can imagine, this process can intimidate the first time through. Making art puts people in a vulnerable position, and intentionally opening our work up to criticism is even more difficult. But this process consistently refines and improves our writing. Everyone in the group displays kindness and good faith. No one speaks out of spite or jealousy, but out of a real desire to help make the piece everything it could be. Moreover, since everyone gets their turn on the chopping block, no one gets singled out or cut down. Perhaps there are similar practices church groups could employ to cultivate vulnerability in an encouraging and helpful environment. For example, group members could take turns giving their testimony or discussing their struggles — with rules set in place in advance about how group members may lovingly respond.
We celebrate and mourn together.
When someone in writers’ group has a birthday or passes a big test or — !!! — gets something published, we celebrate! There’s usually some kind of delicious food. We all rejoice in one another’s victories. And when the rejection letters roll in, we commiserate together. When writer’s block strikes, we encourage each other in pushing through. Sometimes you just need to know you’re not the only one who has stared in terror at a white screen or panicked at the prospect of networking. Even when I’m having a horrible day and don’t want to leave my apartment, I will go to group, because they let me be me, even if “me” that day is depressed or irritable. They never push me to feel differently or be different. And nine times out of ten, I go home feeling and being better than I was before. By contrast, church has too often been a place where I feel compelled to smile when I don’t feel like it, or like I shouldn’t share my struggles or victories for fear of what others will think. But if we celebrate differences (see point 2), so that people feel free to be themselves, and we rejoice with those who rejoice and mourn with those who mourn, then we can help create a culture of joy, growth, and freedom.
We keep the conversation going.
I love our little writers’ facebook group because there we can post our weekly struggles and victories as well as funny or informational writerly resources. We get to carry the inside jokes and lessons of our bi-weekly meetings into our daily lives via the world wide web. And we also get to invite one another into our non-writers’-group world that way, leading to the shared life experience that so many proponents of church community seek. Any similar group would be easy for a small church group to replicate. But having some dedicated shared space is crucial, so that those who might not feel ready to text or call another group member have a “safe” space to interact. Points 1-4 on this list all take place in our regularly scheduled meetings, and point 5 is a low-pressure environment for interacting where we already live — online. These 5 practices have led to genuine friendships that extend beyond the writers’ workshop table or the internet.
Churches sometimes seem to take the stance of the unmarried person who is adamantly opposed to online dating because he or she believes an online love match would be “artificial.” They want a “genuine,” “organic” connection, so they refuse to use the resources right in front of them. In church terms, that may mean we do our Sunday service or weekly meetings the same old way, hoping that real connection will magically happen. But the truth is, real connection requires focusing on a shared goal, working with differences and through vulnerable situations, and making intentional commitment to celebrate, mourn, and otherwise share in each others’ lives. And we must do these things consistently in meetings and settings dedicated to that purpose. “Community” isn’t built overnight, but over years of regular practice that eventually yields results in our daily lives.